I’m fortunate enough to know many talented and creative people. Some of them have already contributed great stuff to World’s Best Media. Like Tim Cuff, my cohost on The World’s Best Podcast with Paul & Tim, or Ryan McDonald who created the amazing promotional video for that podcast. Both Ryan and Tim have contributed much more than that to this creative project I started, but one person who’s had a big influence on this entire thing who hasn’t gotten his due, is an old friend of mine named Michael Cole. Mike’s an extremely talented writer who has his own blog and has published a book of his own short stories called “Everything I’ve Got: A Collection Of Short Stories, Poems, and Essays”. He was the person I went to when I knew I wanted to start a blog and there would be no World’s Best Media without Mike Cole. One of my goals, when I created World’s Best Media was to give a forum to all of these talented people I knew to offer what they’ve created to the world. So I’ve been wanting to do something with Mike specifically for some time and we are going to have him be a special correspondence for World’s Best Media. Mike will be contributing guest articles every now and again on topics similar to the type of thing we cover all the time on all our podcasts and blogs. Pop-culture, movies, books, TV, everything. So without further ado here is Mike’s first piece for our site. I already have one more of his articles ready to post and we’re very happy to have him writing for us. I think you guys will love his point of view. Below his article I just posted a link to his website. Enjoy!
How to Treat Source Material by Michael Cole
When something is adapted into a movie, there is inevitably some complaint about source material. Whether it’s a video game, a book, a comic book, or a TV show, someone is going to be unhappy. It’s inevitable.
Currently, the problem tends to be that something doesn’t follow the source material close enough. It’s a natural complaint, after all if you were a fan of the original thing, then you want to see it adapted well, but is it a fair to expect a literal translation of page to screen?
I think it depends, and I don’t mean it depends on the specific work it’s based on, as much as I mean what the original format was. Look at a finite book series, like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson; there are 7 Harry Potter books, telling one overarching story, there are 5 Percy Jackson books (plus 5 where he’s a semi-main character, plus 5 where he’s a background character). Both of the series have pretty defined beats that lead to their ending in the final book, so they should be pretty close to the original source material, at least in those beats. Harry Potter does a pretty good job of this, cutting some of the fat that isn’t needed, but overall sticking to the same structure. Percy Jackson got two movies (of 5 books) and by the end of the second book, there was a battle which was essentially the final battle from book 5. By doing this, they had predetermined that even if it had been successful enough to warrant further movies, that they wouldn’t be able to continue following the story that had been laid out for them.
I think a finite series, should adapt the basic bones of the original, but an ongoing serial, something which has the mythology being rewritten constantly, has much less responsibility to strictly following the source material. We’re seeing this with comic books, they’ve been restarting, and reinventing, and reimagining the stories and the worlds, and so when it comes time to adapt them into films and TV shows there is a wealth of source material, but sometimes its contradictory, so in this way sticking with the spirit of the characters and their arches tends to be paramount, and making sure that any element that has remained untouched through all the various adaptations and updates isn’t changed (at least without VERY good reason). It’s well established that Joe Chill killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, in every variation except for Tim Burton’s Batman, in which Jack Napier killed them before becoming the Joker. While there was some disagreement about changing it, ultimately it made no impact on the ongoing storytelling in the overall Batman catalog, but allowed that films story to have the proper impact without shifting too far from source material.
What is interesting about film adaptations is, that if you look at them before a certain point (I tend to think of Harry Potter as being the turning point) a significant amount of book to movie adaptations had significant changes to the source material. Look at a movie like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest based on the novel by Ken Kesey, (among many other hugely successful films adapted from books around that time) it took a starkly different approach from the book. In the novel, the whole story is told from Chief’s perspective, and as readers we have a hard time differentiating between what is real and what is hallucination. There are moments in the book to make it clear that the Chief does hallucinate, like when the beds each lower down as the floor opens up and all the sleeping people are experimented on by putting mechanical and electronic parts in them. In the movie, because the story is closer associated with McMurphy’s point of view, we see the ward as being filled with people who are mentally ill, but the view point of it is clear itself.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is an example of a book that would have been unfilm-able as a literal adaptation, and that is where a lot of stand-alone literature falls. We naturally want to see a film adaptation, but not every book translates, whether that be due to technical constraints, or more hard limit medium differences (if Chief had narrated the film as heavily as he had the novel, he would have been talking nearly the entire movie.)
One of my favorite books, The Knife of Never Letting Go which is the first book in The Chaos Walking Trilogy, is being adapted into a film for release in 2019. The book takes place on a world where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts, including the animals. (I’m going to give no spoilers so don’t worry). The people refer to that concept as ‘Noise,’ as in your thoughts are your ‘Noise,’ and most people can hear everyone’s ‘Noise’. On the page, Patrick Ness, fills the page not only with what you need to know, but noise, words all over the pages a typography nightmare, and it makes for an incredible novel. We can ignore a lot of it visually, so we get the idea, but we’re not actually as overwhelmed as the characters. How is this going to work in the film? My hope is that they’re not going to be completely faithful to the novel. My hope is that they’ll find some other manner of conveying that, because— at least for me— ignoring audio noise will be too difficult and distract from the storytelling.
Ultimately, I think there must be a consistency whether it’s to the characters, or the concept, or in some cases it should tell the same story, but I think depending on what kind of source material you have, and what kind of film you’re going to make, you have to change things. You’re going to get some people mad, and those people will get frustrated with those who enjoy the new item, but a movie isn’t a comic book, or a book, or TV show, and the focus just has to be on the quality of the storytelling, and not an overwhelming reverence to an original in a medium that doesn’t tell stories the same way.
What do you think about adaptations and source materials? Do you prefer them to be perfect visual representations or are you ok with changing things as needed? Tell us in the comments below.
3 thoughts on “How To Treat Source Material by Guest Writer Michael Cole”
I think Watchmen is an example of an almost totally literal adaptation ultimately not working
I think there’s a lot of brilliance in Watchmen the film. Very flawed but I think history will be kind to it. The irony is that the one aspect of this film that doesn’t slavishly adapt the source material is the ending and in many ways that change robs the story of its meaning.